Plums usually don't start until the end of May, but a few growers, mostly of Armenian origin, have started bringing green plums, which are unripe fruits the size of cherries. These are hard and sour, and would not appeal to most Americans, but they're much appreciated in the Mideast as the first fruits of spring and are eaten fresh, sometimes with a pinch of salt.
Alan Asdoorian of Island Farms, from Kingsburg, says that his customers want only a certain variety with a distinctive taste and that if he runs out and tries to bring similar-looking immature fruits of standard varieties, like Friar or Simka, they wave their fingers and say "voch" — "no" in Armenian.
What type is this green plum? It appears to be a myrobalan, the small-fruited "cherry plum," a species native to western Asia and primarily used in California as a rootstock. When the fruits ripen in a month or two, they turn yellow but don't get much larger than a quarter; Asdoorian's customers say that at that point the traditional use is to make a sheet or fruit roll of the dried pulp.
Meanwhile, the San Joaquin Valley peach harvest is starting up, about 10 days later than normal because of the generally cool weather this spring, growers say. This weekend, at the Burbank and Studio City farmers markets, Asdoorian will sell his patented Island King yellow peaches, a very early, small-fruited mutation of Queencrest that he and his father discovered about 12 years ago at their farm in Kingsburg.
In the high desert, many stone fruit farmers lost most of their crop to a freeze on April 9, when the fruits were just starting to develop. The temperature dipped to 25 degrees at Tenerelli Orchards in Littlerock, destroying 90% of the crop, says John Tenerelli. He also lost virtually all of his apricots and cherries, and half of his apples, and many neighbors were similarly affected. Tenerelli usually sells at 20 to 25 markets in high season but will only have enough for the Santa Monica market this year.
"It's the worst freeze since my father started the farm in 1973," he says.
As if to compensate for this loss, Tenerelli's daughter, Natalie, who turns 20 today, has hung on so far as a contestant in the reality television show "Survivor: Redemption Island," which was shot in a beachside jungle in Nicaragua last year. If she makes it to the final three, she will be vying in the show's finale on May 15 for the grand prize of $1 million.
"That's a lot of peaches," he says.
Mignonne wild strawberries
At their best, wild strawberries are dreamily aromatic and delicious, a luxury item ideally suited to farmers market and home gardens, because they are so fragile. Sometimes, however, they're ridiculously small, which makes them a chore to eat, especially when the inedible calyx adheres and must be pulled off; often, too, they're not particularly sweet, with a pronounced bitterness from the seeds. The truth is, fruit quality varies markedly, depending on the variety, horticultural practices, and the age and health of the plants.
It's therefore a delight to encounter the Mignonne wild strawberries that Jerry Rutiz of Arroyo Grande started selling last Wednesday, for $5 a clamshell, at the Santa Monica market. They're quite sweet, non-bitter and relatively large, many the size of a thimble. Of course, they're cultivated, not really wild — "wild type" would be a better description for this crop. Rutiz has 1,200 plants, grown from seed — wild strawberries are one of the very few fruits, along with papayas and tamarillos, that are propagated chiefly by seed in Western nations — and hopes to offer the fruit through the summer. The first picking he sold destemmed fruits, which are easier to eat but atrociously perishable; chefs, who buy much of the harvest, implored him to leave the stems on so the berries would keep better.
New safety nets at Santa Monica
Next Wednesday, barring unforeseen glitches, a new system of steel-mesh nets intended to protect the Santa Monica farmers market from traffic will be fully deployed for the first time. These look like red tennis nets and are distantly related to the devices that help bring landing jets to a stop on aircraft carriers.
Since July 2003, when a runaway car killed 10 people and injured 63, the market has stationed a police cruiser at each entrance on the Arizona Street markets, four sides on Wednesdays and two on Saturdays, at a yearly cost of about $172,000. The new setup cost about $200,000 but will save $122,000 in salaries annually, says manager Laura Avery.
The net system was announced in December, but manufacturing and construction delays pushed back the installation until now, adds Avery. The setup at each end of the market, with nets, anchors, barricades and signs, weighs 1,500 pounds and requires its own cart, similar to an airline luggage cart, and an electric puller. City crew members will guide the carts from nearby storage facilities and set up the nets starting at 7 a.m. Market staff and safety personnel have been trained to lower the nets quickly to let emergency vehicles pass, if needed.
Originally Avery feared that the market might lose 10 feet of selling space to accommodate the nets, but engineers managed to configure the design so that the market's footprint is unchanged, she says.
New market in Orange, new manager in Encino
In other news, a promising new market that seeks to emulate the Santa Monica farmers market opens Saturday from 8 a.m. to noon in Old Towne Orange, at Cypress Street and Palm Avenue.
On Sunday, Carole Gallegos, who until recently managed the Studio City farmers market and just opened a new market in Sherman Oaks, will take over the direction of the Encino venue, which was long one of the largest and best in the San Fernando Valley.